At a certain moment in middle age you realize that the old nursery rhyme “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin” has its origin in the body. In particular, the middle-aged female body.
The change is sudden, or at least seems sudden. One day you blissfully believe tweezers were invented for the removal of splinters, the next day you have a tweezers stashed in every purse, every coat pocket, every car glove compartment, every makeup bag because you know that when the lighting is just right–or wrong, depends on your perspective–you’ll notice a long, black hair sprouting. How long has it lingered there?! Noticed by others but not by you?! Horrors.
In the grand scheme of things one should not be distressed about such small matters.
But one is deeply distressed. One feels the presence of these chin-hairs as an affront to one’s very existence. One ponders mortality–this body is of the nature to grow old. One realizes that one’s life’s work is ephemeral, fleeting. One re-reads the last paragraphs of Middlemarch and weeps at the image of Dorothea Brooke–that brightest of lights– resting in an unvisited tomb, forgotten.
One pushes back the existential despair by visiting the H&M website to scope out the new ripped boyfriend jean offered in faded denim (haha…“new, ripped boyfriend”). One remembers actually wearing one’s boyfriend’s jeans back in the day and ripping them strategically oneself. One wavers between nostalgia and more existential despair.
One swears one will NOT become one of those women who wear age-inappropriate apparel. One rethinks such judgmentalism and vows to support women who CHOOSE to wear age-inappropriate apparel, dangit.
One struggles to let go of the helpfully depersonalizing effect of writing about oneself in the formal, third person. One must return to first person and confront this beast, this aging body, these obnoxious chin hairs.
I haven’t always cared about the external markers of beauty.
I was a tomboy as a kid, and I bonded with my mother over books and history–our shared intellectual interests–not makeup and shopping. In fact, for most of my life I have regarded any interest in or devotion to external beauty as shallow. Why waste time, energy, and money on trivial concerns?
But I’ve gradually developed an interest in these things as I’ve grown into adulthood. When I first started teaching I made a conscious decision to present my body through culturally feminine modes of expression in the classroom. I wanted to show students–without any words–that the female body is also the professorial body: no twead or pipe required (although those are lovely, granted). So for me it’s skirts and frilly shirts, rather than pantsuits and button-downs.
And I’ve also found that aging perceptibly has made me more interested in feeling pretty. Believe me, this came as a shock. I’m a feminist and well read in the literature of gender studies. I reject how women’s bodies are relentlessly judged according to impossible cultural standards of beauty. But I couldn’t ignore the way I felt, and I wanted to get curious about that feeling.
When I found a few more gray hairs than I wanted, I also found that I wanted to dye my hair. So I did. When I started playing piano again after a long absence, I found I wanted to have my nails manicured in pretty colors: sparkly red at Christmas, pink around Valentine’s Day, a dark blue when I was feeling blue, and now a light turquoise for Easter. It’s fun and playful: I like my short conversations with the manicurist, the tiny hand massage, the way my body feels cared for and respected by another person, the frisson of word-pleasure when she asks what kind of manicure and I reply, “Shellac, please.”
An instructive metaphor, shellacking: In a sense, all of these beauty products and procedures attempt to forestall the body’s natural aging process, to preserve the body at a particular moment in time–varnished, frozen, captured, shellacked. But as anyone can tell you who has had a shellac manicure, the body does not cooperate with such attempts. Your fingernails grow and the shellac does not. Nor does the nail paint gradually wear off, as does regular nail polish.
Instead, one’s fingernails begin to take on a strange duality–the binaries of polished/not-polished, color/clear, unnatural/natural clearly demarcated on the nail–revealing the truth that these beauty procedures will work for a while, and then they won’t.
As I’ve pondered these things over the past few days I’ve made some realizations.
At the heart of my rejection of external markers of physical beauty resides a worry: the worry that in noticing physical beauty, in cultivating my own embodied expressions of beauty I will begin to judge some bodies as beautiful and others as not-beautiful.
But caring about whether I feel pretty (a feeling located in my subjective experience, not in external evaluations of my body) has led me to actively look for beauty in other people’s bodies.
And it turns out that everyone is physically beautiful. Everyone.
No matter the person’s age, gender, health, or sex, there is always something beautiful about his or her body. I notice freckles, eyes, the way a person walks, her laughter, his hand movements, even eyelashes–curled! straight! long! red! Bits and pieces of God’s grandeur litter the entirety of the human landscape. And if you’re looking for them they flame out, like shining from shook foil.
At some point I will leave this very feminine version of myself. I can already feel the shift taking place. I imagine driving an old Ford truck and learning how to shoot a gun. I imagine shaving my head and getting a tattoo, many tattoos. I imagine a nose-piercing and wearing the same all-black or all-white outfit every day. I imagine wild, silver hair and unshaven legs and fingernails dirt-encrusted from gardening.
But that’s in the future. For now, I’ll keep dying, waxing, manicuring, pedicuring, shopping, and delighting in makeup.
And I’ll be watching out for you–looking for what makes you feel and look beautiful, too.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.